Don't look away from genocide history

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Don't look away. This is what I tell myself as I walk through the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the Rwandan capital city.

Main image: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev visit to Kigali Genocide Memorial (Kigali Genocide Memorial via Flickr)Visitors have crowded around images replete with dead bodies, screens unreeling silent, staccato footage of attacks, reams of text telling the story of that day in April 1994 when evil descended on this country.

But this is not a voyeuristic gore-fest. The memorial to the victims of Rwanda's genocide, in which more than one million Tutsis were slaughtered over a 100-day period by their Hutu countrymen — even as the UN was alerted to events — offers just enough of the horror to hold people's attention.

And it is the repository of such a superfluity of victims' smiling faces and their heartbreaking stories that leaves visitors questioning how it is possible for a country to turn on its own people like that — and a world to turn its face away from the unfolding horror.

This is the urgent question that atrocities (and memorials) such as this should provoke: why do humans turn into killing machines at the behest of their leaders, and when will we allow it to happen again?

Days earlier, the subject of the genocide had arisen during dinner with fellow guests at a lodge in north-western Rwanda. We had all been captivated by this country of gently rolling hills, spotlessly clean streets (plastic bags were banned here a decade ago; pavements are swept and verges weeded) and disarmingly friendly people. We were incredulous at their ability to heal themselves of unhealable wounds, to reunify just two decades after unspeakable atrocities were carried out on these same tidy streets.

None of us could imagine such wholesale slaughter occurring in our own countries. We were set apart from such warfare, mere observers of a conflict that had destroyed an entire people.

 

"There is no point in romanticising a country that has overcome hatred when the same old genocidal story is unfurling in some far-off location as we speak."

 

And yet each of us was born in a country that wouldn't have existed in its current form if not for similar brutality and repression: the US, South Africa, Australia, Britain. First peoples had been massacred, communities dispossessed of their land, empires expanded in the name of development.

Borders had been arbitrarily drawn and tribes torn asunder in the greedy quest for resources.

And let's not forget, I pointed out as our discussion continued, those people who are being exterminated this very minute, as we converse upon these blood-stained hills: Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, Rohingyas in Myanmar. There is no point in romanticising a country that has overcome hatred when the same old genocidal story is unfurling in some far-off location as we speak.

This is how we allow history to repeat itself, by compartmentalising one atrocity from another, by failing to see the patterns or connect the dots that coalesce to form an arcing human story. Few of us are disconnected from the brutality that shaped the society we live in; and by the power of technology, we are all as intimately connected as we care to be with the inhumanities unfolding in the present.

Driving to Kigali a few days later, I asked my guide a question that had been burning on my tongue since I'd met him almost two weeks earlier, and which I wasn't sure was an appropriate one to ask: Are you Tutsi or Hutu?

He paused and then answered, 'I'm Rwandan.' It was a statement that exemplifies life in post-genocide Rwanda: in the decades since, the country has removed tribal affiliations from people's identity documents and worked hard to unify them and so guard against further bloodshed.

But after a brief silence, my guide spoke again. He was ten years old during the genocide, he said, and he escaped to Uganda with his Tutsi mother and siblings. His father and older brother stayed behind to look after their cattle. They were murdered.

'It happened, now we are looking forward,' he said. 'We are trying to rebuild our country again.'

And then, in an echo of that lesson that seems to elude us all: 'Always we say, "never again", but it is happening in Syria, it is happening in South Sudan, it is happening in our neighbour, Burundi.'

And so don't look away, I remind myself. We must never look away.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev visit to Kigali Genocide Memorial (Kigali Genocide Memorial via Flickr)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, genocide, Rwanda, Syria, Aboriginal Australians

 

 

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Existing comments

Such an important article; thank you Catherine. Evidence offered at a recent conference shows not all humans have regularly engaged-in/benefitted-from genocide. Check out the original hunter/gatherer pygmy peoples. And, of course, Australia's very ancient Aboriginal cultures. Many of the 'First Peoples' had learned two lessons we desperately need: how to live in ecological balance with their country and how to live lawfully with neighbouring ethnic groups. Funny isn't it, that we 'Second Peoples' have the audacity to look down on them as 'primitive' and 'uncivilized' and (at our best) try to brain-wash them with our ways, including regular sectarian wars (guess who supplied the weapons for the Hutus?). More details are offered in 'Humanitarian Cosmology' and 'The Anthropocene Misnomer' - both free on-line. Next in this trilogy: a paper considering what impacts millennia of fierce warfare, regular genocides, famines, and plagues have had on the genomes of us 'civilized' farmer/civic Second Peoples. If your interested in how it was humanity first broke with the eco/social sanity of First Peoples, please check the 'Gobekli Tepe' web-site. Also, the author(s) of 'Genesis' graphically represent what appeared as an horrific ethnologic change-over (compare e.g. Chapter 1 with Chapters 2-4). We ain't who-we-think-we-are!
Dr Marty Rice | 29 March 2018


I brlieve a slow-moving genocide is happening to the Weat Papuans at the hands of the Indonesian military and police. It's time more people realised this and contacted our politicians on behalf of these oppressed people.
Grant Allen | 29 March 2018


I wonder what these kids from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev took home with them from the exhibition, and whether it would have been the same as a visiting party from somewhere safe and suburban such as, say, the University of Canberra.
Roy Chen Yee | 30 March 2018


I imagine the Israeli university students would be wondering how many of the Tutsis who sought refuge in Catholic churches could be slaughtered at the hands of church members within. When religion becomes tribalism and humans abandon their humanity and crucify each other again and again.
AURELIUS | 01 April 2018


Thanks for your very thought-provoking article, Catherine. If we broaden our focus, we'll perceive a category of nations that are "GENOCIDALLY INTENT". These are major countries (and their allies) that, whilst publically standing against genocide, have themselves stock-piled intercontinental missiles with hydrogen bomb warheads, deadly new genetic and other infectious biological weapons, hyper-toxic chemical-warfare agents, and who-knows-what-other mass-murdering perversions of scientific inventiveness. If we draw the graph, we'll find a strong correlation between wealthy, civilised nations and genocidal intent. Food for thought . . . Most of these same nations are also responsible for "COLATERAL GENOCIDE" through the extremely unjust global distribution of the necessities of life and by the planetary destruction that results from their 'devil-may-care', hubristic scramble for industrial, commercial, and political dominance. On-going genocide may be a lot closer to us than we realise.
Dr Marty Rice | 02 April 2018


Thank you Catherine for your reflection on genocide in Rwanda and mass killing of targeted communities in many other countries since. Without wishing to be critical of your reflection, I do request that you include Muslims in the list of communities facing extermination in Iraq and especially Syria "...those people who are being exterminated this very minute, as we converse upon these blood-stained hills: Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, ..." The first target for the Salafist-Jihadist extremists are the non-Salafi Muslims, particularly their clerics and other community leaders. With their extreme interpretation of Islam, the Salafists deem every other Muslim as not a "real Muslim", but an apostate, and therefore deserving of death. Meanwhile the attacks in Syria by government forces and their Russian allies do not specifically target Christian and Yazidi communities, but the population distribution of the different religions ensures that, again, Muslims account for the majority of fatalities, although they are non-combatants.
Ian Fraser | 03 April 2018


Powerful piece, Catherine! Thanks.
Michael Furtado | 04 April 2018


Dr Catherine Marshall’s article raises some very important principles – especially its title- “Don't look away from genocide history”. The Rwandan Genocide was appalling and we also need to be aware that all other genocides are appalling too – including the one in our country that affected our First Nation. Those of us who follow history will know that at least many of those who caused the Rwandan Genocide were brought to justice. Sadly, this has not been the same for all genocides. We know that the Indonesian military (TNI) has been involved in genocide in West Papua, East Timor, Acheh and in Indonesia. We also know that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been responsible for gross human rights abuses against the Palestinians and the stealing of their land. The TNI and the IDF have the strong backing of the US and its allies. We must urge our leaders to change our international policies not to turn a blind eye towards genocide or other forms of inhumanity and instead work towards peace, social justice, fairness in international relations and caring effectively for the environment. And, of course, to pay back to Timor-Leste the royalties on its oil and gas which our leaders have stolen which has led to such great shame for Australia in the International Permanent Court.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 April 2018


Dr Catherine Marshall’s article raises some very important principles – especially its title- “Don't look away from genocide history”. The Rwandan Genocide was appalling and we also need to be aware that all other genocides are appalling too – including the one in our country that affected our First Nation. Those of us who follow history will know that at least many of those who caused the Rwandan Genocide were brought to justice. Sadly, this has not been the same for all genocides. We know that the Indonesian military (TNI) has been involved in genocide in West Papua, East Timor, Acheh and in Indonesia. We also know that the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has been responsible for gross human rights abuses against the Palestinians and the stealing of their land. The TNI and the IDF have the strong backing of the US and its allies. We must urge our leaders to change our international policies not to turn a blind eye towards genocide or other forms of inhumanity and instead work towards peace, social justice, fairness in international relations and caring effectively for the environment. And, of course, paying back to Timor-Leste the royalties on its oil and gas which our leaders have stolen which has led to such great shame in the International Permanent Court
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 04 April 2018


Sadly it is far from clear that Rwanda has overcome hatred. A highly repressive government representing a minority represses public speech discussing divisions within the country let alone anyone pointing out how far the political elite is from being representative of the people.
Helen W | 05 April 2018


That you for this reminder I remember hearing about the Rwandan atrocities and wondered how can this happen in our time. Then Ive read about others that rarely get a mention or are covered by the word famine when their was food to feed the starving as in Bangali during the second world war. I suppose we have one atrocity that no-one wishes to see past which leaves the others voiceless.
Mark | 12 April 2018


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